AUSTIN (KXAN) — If you’ve driven southbound on South Lamar Boulevard near Bluebonnet Lane recently, then you’ve probably noticed the slew of cars with flashing lights on in the right lane.
As the city of Austin pivots back to Stage 4 COVID-19 risk levels and the omicron variant sweeps across Central Texas, testing demands have increased dramatically in the region. It’s the kind of demand clinics like Grand Ave Pharmacy are working to stay on top of at its pharmacy and mobile testing locations.
But with heightened interest in COVID-19 testing comes long lines and backed up traffic, as seen at Grand Ave Pharmacy’s South Lamar drive-thru mobile clinic and Nomi Health’s drive-thru, pop-up clinic at the Long Center.
“A month ago, [Grand Ave Pharmacy locations] were doing anywhere from 700, even 600 to 700 tests a day was pretty average,” pharmacist and owner Dr. Chris Adlakha said. “Right now, we’re pushing anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 a day.”
That spike in testing requests has correlated with a significant uptick in the positivity rate among testing samples Grand Ave Pharmacy has collected, he said. For the majority of the pandemic, Adlakha said anywhere from 1%-3% of tests conducted would come back positive; now, that range hovers closer to 15%-20%.
To meet the demand, Grand Ave Pharmacy runs a 24-hour operation off South Lamar and has staggered shift times for staff, Adlakha said. However, the effects of those long lines are now being felt by some area businesses in the form of increased congestion and, at times, limited access for customers to enter their parking lots.
“I know that we’ve caught some traffic issues with lines and people trying to get a test,” Adlakha said, later adding: “We are trying. We’re working directly with the city, we’re working with traffic control, and even with the police department. Everybody’s really come together to try to make this as efficient as possible.”
Amid the traffic, a sign placed in front of Sukha Yoga and Maha Coffee requests those seeking COVID-19 tests refrain from blocking their parking lots. Even as she’s spent hours personally directing traffic away from her shops, owner Erinn Leigh said she estimates it’s still cost hundreds in lost revenue each week.
Leigh and her partner, Mark Herron, have been business owners on South Lamar for more than seven years, two of which have been spent navigating the hurdles of the coronavirus pandemic. But when lines down Lamar began blocking the entrances to her studio and coffee shop about two weeks ago, she said it exacerbated an already difficult time for small businesses.
She said she’s spent hours directing traffic away from her parking lot to accommodate customers trying to enter and exit. Still, she said the 24-hour nature of the testing site, coupled with normal morning and evening peak traffic hours, have made the past two weeks chaotic.
As for how to remedy this situation, Leigh said it’ll need to be a concerted effort from those getting tested, as well as city and pharmacy leadership, to alleviate the situation.
“It takes a group effort. People who are driving need to pay attention and be thoughtful of their surroundings, but more importantly, the city of Austin needs to realize that our tax dollars are going to provide support, and so they should get someone out here to help the company who’s running the testing sites,” she said. “Whether it’s here on South Lamar or anywhere else around Austin right now, they should really be thinking forward because it would save everyone a lot of stress, a lot of agitation and a lot of miscommunication.”
Currently, Adlakha said a combination of Austin police officers and privately hired security operate at testing sites to assist with traffic flow. He said between three and six officers or security guards are stationed at each facility location.
Adlakha added he met with the city’s transportation staff and a city permitting official on Wednesday to go over site plans and strategize a more effective way to direct traffic through the facility and minimize its impact on roadways.
“The last thing we want to do is have another business’s business be affected negatively from people trying to get a COVID test,” he said.
Officials with the city’s 3-1-1 department confirmed they have received a service request related to traffic backups near the testing facility. In an emailed statement, officials from the Austin Transportation Department said the city is working with clinic leaders to address traffic impacts around the Long Center and on South Lamar.
“Austin Transportation staff are working with COVID-19 test vendors to help them run smooth operations while ensuring public safety,” officials said, adding: “Near the Bluebonnet Lane and South Lamar Boulevard COVID-19 test location, the vendor will adjust operations to outside of afternoon peak traffic hours and employ officers to provide better traffic direction.”
As for changes she hopes to see implemented, Leigh called on city and pharmacy leaders to expand officer presence to help control and direct traffic. She also suggested rerouting the entrance to the clinic to Bluebonnet Lane, where there is street parking available for people to queue in as opposed to an active traffic lane.
“I think that the city, as well as the private business who’s running the testing site, should collaborate and use their resources to support everyone who’s being impacted along this roadway and really come up with something different,” she said. “Especially if we’re going to be living with COVID. This isn’t necessarily going away, and so we have to learn how to live with it in a more normalized way so that we can continue to live and not be in these heightened states of chaos.”